From Rodin to rappers: more similar than you might think

NWA
20Aug

When you think culture, you won’t find two more disparate topics of conversation than Parisian sculptor Augustin Rodin and hip hop group and gangsta rap originators Niggaz’ with Attitude, commonly known as N.W.A.

Yet I somehow managed to enjoy the brilliance of both of these artists in one single summer night in Montreal, by starting off my evening at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and ending it with a late screening of Straight Outta Compton.

When I woke up this morning I realized that they had a few things in common.

First off, the exhibit Rodin – Metamorphoses is not to be missed. With a total of 300 works, featuring special loans from the Musée Rodin, this is the biggest exhibition devoted to Rodin ever presented in Canada. The show includes 171 sculptures, sketches, watercolours, as well as a selection of prints from the recently acquired collection of seventy photographs.

The exhibit runs until October 18, so you still have plenty of time to see it. Quick tip for those who don’t know: the MMFA has a half price Wednesday evening special from 5-9 p.m. allowing you to see any special exhibit for only $10. Of course you have to contend with the crowds of everyone else wanting to save a few bucks, but I really didn’t find it that bad. The exhibit is beautifully organized and the sculptures are placed in such a pattern as to allow for effortless weaving through people and reading the signs with each work of art presented. Don’t be lazy and skip through the information provided to you. It gives you great insight into the work of a brilliant sculptor.

Speaking of crowds, the Scotiabank Theatre was packed when we rushed over after grabbing a quick bite to catch a late screening of Straight Outta Compton. We had high expectations because the buzz has been good. I’m here to tell you the buzz is justified.

This movie, to paraphrase ‘90s’ hip hop vernacular, “is dope!” It’s sleek, beautifully directed by F. Gary Gray, of course features a killer soundtrack, and has been perfectly cast. So perfectly cast that at times you completely forget that you’re watching a movie and think you’re watching a documentary. Particularly since Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks and acts so much like his dad you constantly find yourself muttering “This is unreal…” to no one in particular.

Straight Outta Compton revolves around the rise and fall of N.W.A, a hip hop group from Compton, California. The name of the movie is, of course, the name of their 1988 debut studio album that shot to the top of the billboard and made them superstars. Laced with violent lyrics and lots of profanity, the group was banned from numerous radio stations around the country, but they helped give birth to the West Coast sound that sparked a hip hop revolution. To deny that NWA was one of the seminal rap groups in the U.S. is to deny them their rightful place.

Most of all, they helped bring attention to police brutality and the deep-seated racism that plagued (and unfortunately, continues to plague) law enforcement. Fuck The Police wasn’t an incitement to violence; it was a cry for the injustice perpetuated daily on black men and the brutal treatment they often received at the hands of the people who were supposed to protect them. By the time Ice Cube says “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, you’re paying attention. It’s at times disheartening watching events that took place 20 years ago and realizing that very little has actually changed.

While N.W.A.’s profanity-laced lyrics were considered groundbreaking by music writers, most media at the time thought otherwise. Criticized for what many thought was a glorification of drugs, gang life, drive-by shootings, cop slamming, and, of course, cringing sexism, many reviews were hardly flattering. But their appeal was real because what they rapped about was real. People recognized themselves in that reality and they spawned a new truth.

Of course, no matter how much I adored the movie, I also recognize its limitations. It’s a slick and polished Hollywood production that was years in the making just so everything could be just right. And with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre acting as the film’s co-producers, you better believe this movie is less factual documentary and more vanity project. It has already been criticized heavily for its convenient omission of the physical violence some of the group members inflicted on the women in their lives. Revisionist history doesn’t work too well when the people you’ve omitted important and unflattering details about are still around to tell their side of the story.

It’s clear from the movie that these young men suffer from what often afflicts the male gender; the Madonna/whore syndrome. You’re either the Madonna in my life (caring mom, sister, loving, faithful wife), or you’re the opportunistic, trashy ho’ with your boobs out and your ass hanging, dancing at my pool parties and sucking my dick in the bathroom. The sexism is there laid out plainly for us to see in the movie, but we don’t get to focus on it, because, well… women are just secondary storylines in this movie. And sadly, in many other movies.

Just like N.W.A, Augustin Rodin’s art was looked down upon and criticized because it so clearly veered from what was acceptable at the time. In fact, he failed his entrance exams to Paris’ foremost art school three times and for many of his early years simply made a living as a craftsman and an ornamentor. Because Rodin insisted on realism in his form, he was heavily criticized by both the public and the critics. It wasn’t until much later in his career that critical acclaim finally came his way and today he’s often recognized as the progenitor of modern sculpture.

In his personal life, he, too, was a bit of an asshole, as many self-absorbed creative men tend to be. Although he had a life-long relationship and partnership with Rose Beuret, he also had a lifelong mistress in fellow sculptor Camille Claudel, who suffered a nervous breakdown a few years after they broke up, and was eventually confined to an insane asylum. Nice going, Rodin…

Rodin, rappers… the transition last night was seamless and both are well worth your time.

 

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